Coming up for air

Pollution penetrates 'breathable' swimming arena

Beijing's hazy issue

August 06, 2008|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,Sun Reporter

BEIJING - Just how bad can the pollution get in China?

The first practices of the U.S. swim team might have provided an unpleasant answer.

The U.S swimmers, as well as the Australian swim team, said that when they arrived for their initial practice at the National Aquatics Center on Monday, they noticed what could be described only as a visible haze hovering around the ceiling.

"[Monday,] they said it was the worst it's been," Erik Vendt, a member of the American 800-meter freestyle relay team, said yesterday. "It was horrible. It was almost laughable, it was so bad. I came into [the Aquatics Center], and I didn't know if it was my eyes, but I definitely saw something. It was definitely hazy in here."

The 17,000-seat Aquatics Center, nicknamed "the Water Cube," was built using a multilayer lightweight plastic membrane that is "breathable" in an effort to make the pool environmentally friendly. It is supposedly energy-efficient because it heats and cleans itself and it collects rainwater that is then processed and eventually used in the pool.

But the 3,000 breathable bubbles that make up the structure won't be doing the athletes any favors this week if they want to escape air pollution.

"It looked really weird," Vendt said. "It's better today at least. I don't think it will be too much of a problem."

The American swimmers, including Michael Phelps and Katie Hoff, weren't the only ones concerned. After his team practiced, Australian coach Alan Thompson went looking for answers about how such a thing was even possible.

"There was a slight haze around the roof level, but it was gone this morning," Thompson said. "As long as it's gone, it's good."

Australian swimmer Grant Hackett, a two-time gold medalist in the 1,500-meter freestyle, downplayed the haze, saying he didn't think it would be a problem unless it got worse.

"If people start coughing and sputtering all over the place, it will be an issue, but hopefully not," Hackett said.

Arne Ljungqvist, the chairman of the International Olympic Committee Medical Commission, said there are no set criteria for canceling an event because of poor air quality, but the possibility exists.

"It requires an evaluation of many factors, such as wind, temperature, humidity, as well as pollutants," Ljungqvist said. "There is no such thing as a cutoff limit, and there is no cutoff limit for any particular pollutant."

Pollution has been a major concern for Olympic athletes competing in the outdoor events, but this was the first indication indoor events might be affected, as well. China spent a reported $17 billion trying to improve the air quality leading up to the Games, although the results have been mixed. The U.S. cycling team arrived Monday wearing masks, causing some minor embarrassment for the IOC.

"[Wearing masks] is not a measure I would recommend," Ljungqvist said. "Unless the conditions are very unfavorable and you are an asthmatic, it is not necessary and I don't see the need. I also doubt the efficiency of those devices."

Mark Schubert, head coach of USA Swimming, said he walked into the Water Cube on Monday with Dara Torres, who is asthmatic, and neither of them could believe what they were seeing.

"Dara was looking up at the ceiling saying, 'That can't be what I think it is,' " Schubert said. "We're real happy to see clear skies today. I grew up in [Los Angeles], and it's certainly not any worse than L.A. in the '70s. We used to perform real well. We're lucky to be indoors. I think the effect will be minimal."

kevin.vanvalkenburg @baltsun.com

Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony

Friday, 7:30 p.m., chs. 11, 4

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